Spark : A Reading Staycation

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Who knew that my home province of British Columbia has produced so many great children’s books? My Reading Staycation project has grown beyond my initial expectations, and I’ve been surprised and delighted by each new discovery!

Spark is the endearing story of a little dragon who just can’t seem to control his flames. He desperately wants to be a fire-breathing dragon like his mama and papa, but all of his efforts seem to end in a big, smokey mess.

Anyone who’s ever worked with young children has likely come across a few little Sparks in their time, enthusiastic kids who just seem to inadvertently wreak havoc wherever they go. From having a voice that carries (no matter how hard they try to use their library voice) to having a grip that sends glue squirting across the table (even when they’re “squeezing gently”), some kids are just waking tornadoes, despite their best attempts to control their exuberance.

Spark.

Not being able to do something can be disheartening and frustrating for any child, especially when they can see others accomplishing the same task with ease. In situations like this, a gentle story like Spark can help remind disappointed children that sometimes things just take a little time. Waiting is hard, but sometimes it’s the only thing that will do the trick.

Kaillie George is a Vancouver-based writer, educator and editor who has published several picture books, early readers and beginner chapter books.

Kicking it Old School with the Paper Bag Princess

The initial assignment in one of my favourite MLIS classes, Survey of Children’s Literature, was to revisit a favourite picture book and consider whether childhood adoration can survive an adult’s critical eye. I decided to look at the Canadian picture book classic The Paper Bag Princess. Here’s what I wrote.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

Long before the feisty Scottish princess Merida of Pixar’s Brave, there was Elizabeth, the spunky young heroine of Robert Munsch’s Canadian classic The Paper Bag Princess. First published in 1980, this simple children’s story, told with humour and illustrated with charm, is the antithesis of the traditional damsel-in-distress fairy tale, and a refreshing reinterpretation of cultural gender norms. Though I was hardly aware of it as a child, the story of The Paper Bag Prince helped shaped my developing view of the world, and my place within it.

As a work of children’s fiction, The Paper Bag Princess remains as relevant today as it was when I was a child. The story’s protagonist Elizabeth begins the story a typical princess, but when a dragon destroys her possessions and steals her prince, Elizabeth sets out to rescue him. Brave and resourceful, Elizabeth uses her intelligence to defeat the dragon, and when the ungrateful prince insults her appearance, she decides she’s better off without him. The Paper Bag Princess delivers a powerful message of female empowerment that’s humorous and engaging, and never heavy-handed or preachy. The story is told so matter-of-factly that its reversal of traditional gender roles seems entirely natural and believable, the way it ought to be. Elizabeth is a straight-forward character who sees a problem and discovers a non-violent way to solve it. By presenting the princess as a strong, intelligent character who just happens to be female, The Paper Bag Princess puts the emphasis on her personality and actions, rather than on her gender. The message to children is simple, yet powerful – gender need not define who you are, or determine what you are capable of.

 When I was first introduced to The Paper Bag Princess as a child, I knew nothing of notions of female empowerment or gender equality. I loved the story because it was funny, with an exciting plot and delightful illustrations of dragons. Robert Munsch created in Elizabeth a female character that was immensely appealing as well as empowering. Even as a child, I knew that Elizabeth was a special character, a girl who took on dragons and stuck her tongue out at boys. I may not have realized then that she was shaping my understandings of gender norms, but I did know that she was more impressive than the usual boring storybook princesses! The Paper Bag Princess gently reinforces cherished lessons that last a life-time: that intelligence is powerful; individuals should be judged on their character, not their appearance; violence is not the only solution; and all relationships should be based on respect.

As an adult I appreciate more than ever the positive spirit of The Paper Bag Princess and its emphasis on intelligence and bravery, particularly when so much of today’s media seems to reinforce negative gender norms for young girls. The Paper Bag Princess is a story at once powerful and light-hearted, and its endearing protagonist is a role model who delights as much as she empowers. I can only hope that future generations find as much pleasure and encouragement in this story as I once did, over 20 years ago.

Munsch, Robert N., and Michael Martchenko. The paper bag princess. Toronto: Annick Press, 1980. Print.

Tiptoe Joe

Tiptoe fast,

Tiptoe slow,

Say hello to Tiptoe Joe.

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Tiptoe Joe is pretty much toddler time perfection. Bouncy, rhyming text, short phrases, sweet characters and lots of opportunities for simple actions make this a winning choice, and I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to discover it!

Tiptoe Joe, a red sneaker-wearing bear, tiptoes around the forest inviting his animal friends to join him for a surprise. The animals clop clop, thump thump, flap flap, thud thud, swish swish, and slap slap after him, to discover that Tiptoe Joe’s secret, and the reason he’s being so quiet, is a pair of adorable new little bear cubs, curled up fast asleep.

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This book must’ve been written with story time in mind. I love the repeated phrases “(animal, animal) come with me. I know something you should see.” and ” Tell us, tell us, Tiptoe Joe. What’s the secret? Let us know.”, which remind of some of my other favourite story time books, like I Went Walking, Brown Bear Brown Bear, This Little Chick and Monkey and Me.  There’s a great sense of rhythm, and the rhymes are really effective.

I can also picture using this with my toddlers and getting them flapping and swishing like the owl and the turkey and thudding like the moose. The actions are simple and repetitive, which is great for adorably clumsy little toddlers who are just figuring out this whole motor-skills thing.

This simple, happy little story is definitely worth checking out, especially if you’ve got toddler times coming up!

Grumpy Bird – A Reading Staycation

“When Bird woke up, he was grumpy.”

Well, who can’t relate to that opening sentence? I think we’ve all woken up on the wrong side of the bed like Bird, grumpy and grouchy for no apparent reason, and frustrated to the brim with the world and everyone in it.

Bird is too grumpy to eat, he’s too grumpy to play, he’s too grumpy even to fly, which means he has no choice but to walk to get where he’s going. Turns out all the other animals in his neighborhood LOVE walking, and Bird quickly finds himself a pied piper of sorts, leading the rest of the animals in a jaunt around the woods. When Bird realizes that the other animals are following his lead, and that he can make them do silly things like stand on one leg or jump, he forgets all about his grumpy mood, and invites all of his new friends back to his nest for a snack.

OK, so it’s not the most complex picture book out there, but that’s what makes it such a perfect group read-aloud. The story is short and direct enough to grab and hold the attention of a wiggly audience, the text is simple with just enough repetition, and there are plenty of opportunities to really ham it up as Bird grows more and more exasperated with his too-cheerful neighbors. The illustrations are just awesome – bold black lines, simple shapes, expressive characters, primary colours and few fine details make for eye-catching images that really work well when shared with a crowd.

Grumpy Bird is just so appealing because we’ve all been Grumpy Bird – grumpy, grouchy, and annoyed by every chirpy, cheerful, annoyingly well-meaning person we come across. Hello, Mondays….

Originally from South Africa, Jeremy Tankard lived in several different cities before settling with his family in Vancouver. He was the artist for the BC Summer Reading Club in 2014, and is the author and/or illustrator of several picture books. I also met him once when he brought his family into the central library (I gave him the key to the family washroom), and he was very nice.

Review: Otter Goes to School

Back to school?!? Didn’t school just let out for the summer?! Here in Vancouver, most kids are still only about half way through their summer holidays, with school not resuming until September, but in cities across North America students and teachers are already packing their bags and getting read to head back to school.

So, why not celebrate their misfortune with an adorable school-themed picture book?

Otter Goes to School follows the adorable, hapless character Otter as she decides to start a school for her stuffed toy friends. There are several books in the Otter series, both picture books and early readers, and they are all, dare I say it, adorable. And trust me, that’s not a bad thing. I challenge you to read this picture book and not want to pick up that squishy, fuzzy little otter and give her a great big snuggle. This is definitely a roll-polly, cuddly protagonist that will readily appeal to young readers.

In Otter Goes to School, Otter begins to doubt her abilities as a teacher when one of her toy students, Teddy, declares the he doesn’t like school, and that he’s worried that all the other students are better than him at everything. Poor Otter doesn’t know how to help Teddy discover his hidden talents, and playing school suddenly isn’t very fun anymore.

Good old Otter Keeper, who sort of plays the role of Dave in Alvin and the Chipmunks here, reassures Otter than everyone is good at something, and that sometimes it just takes a bit of time to uncover what that something is. It’s a familiar story, reminiscent of Excellent Ed, but one that bears repeating. In a way, Otter Goes to School is written as much for teachers and caregivers as it is for young children. When our students or our children struggle in school and lose faith in themselves, our own belief in our abilities as carers and educators can take a major hit, too.

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It never hurts to have a gentle reminder that sometimes connecting with children can take time, more than a little effort, and sometimes a change in perspective, and that the bumps in the road are natural, and aren’t indicators of our abilities as educators or caregivers.

And honestly – if you need a pick-me-up, just look at this cuddly otter! It’s so cuddly!!

Binky the Space Cat – A Reading Staycation

We’re kicking off Beautiful British Columbia : A Reading Staycation with a bang! Our first book comes to us from the pride of Ladner, talented author-illustrator Ashley Spires. If you haven’t heard of Binky the Space Cat, you’d better fix that, pronto. This fun series of early graphic novels features Binky, a house cat who’s convinced that he’s actually a space cat, charged by a secret organization with the protection of his human family. Armed with space cat technology, Binky fights off evil aliens (which look remarkably like houseflies), keeping his house and his family safe. Is Binky really a space cat, or he is just a frisky feline with a very fanciful imagination? You decide!

Ashley Spires has created several books about Binky the Space Cat, and the character remains one of B.C.’s most recognizable literary exports. Binky the Space Cat was nominated for the 2011 Silver Birch Express Award and the 2011 Hackmatack Award, and there are six Binky titles in the series.

Spires has recently introduced a spin-off series of graphic novels featuring Fluffy Vandermere, the cat sergeant in charge of P.U.R.S.T. (Pets of the Universe Ready for Space Travel), which are just as weird and hilarious as you might expect.

Cleverly illustrated with charming animal characters and silly, sly text, Binky the Space Cat is highly appealing to emerging readers, and acts as a great introduction to the graphic novel medium.

On a related note, I just had to include this quote from a review of the sequel Binky to Rescue  I found on Amazon:

This is a Canadian children’s series, which makes for some interesting comparisons. The Canadians are different from you and me. They have a bit of a European sensibility to their comics. For the most part Binky is like any other comic you might name, though shots of his rear are amusingly French. He also seems to suffer from a bit of space gas, but a big deal isn’t made about this. If you have kids that are desperate to find fart jokes in all their literature then I’m sure they’ll be adequately amused by the little “poooot!” but for other readers it will hardly register.

Yes, dear readers, we Canadians are indeed different.

Beautiful British Columbia – A Reading Staycation

 My partner and I were planning a brief getaway over the B.C. Day long weekend when we hit a few snags in our plans. Well, one major snag, really – the Canadian dollar. We originally wanted to drive down to one of our favourite cities, Portland, Oregon, for a few days of craft beer tasting and Powell’s Books browsing. High season hotel prices and a weak Canadian dollar torpedoed our plans, though, and we decided to try something a little closer to home – Vancouver Island.

What we found was spectacular – breathtaking beaches and luxurious rainforests in Tofino and Ucluelet, fantastic used book stores and tourist delights in Victoria, and great craft breweries in quirky towns up and down the island. We had a fantastic experience exploring our own backyard.

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If you’re politely wondering what the point of all this is, it’s to introduce a little project I’m embarking on, which I’ve unimaginatively dubbed  Beautiful British Columbia : A Reading Staycation. Inspired by the beauty and diversity of my home province, I’m going to be exploring children’s books written and/or illustrated by British Columbian authors over the next few weeks. I hope you’ll join me!

Stay tuned…..

Review: A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting

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A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting

In his memoir A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson does a bit of research on bears while preparing for his hike along the Appalachian trail:

Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn’t happen often, but – and here is the absolutely salient point – once would be enough.

In A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting, Michelle Robinson takes a very tongue-in-cheek look at what to do in the event of such a bear attack. Robinson pokes fun at traditional bear-attack wisdom, looking at the differences between brown bears and black bears, and coming to the conclusion that if you happen to be attacked by a bear, its colour will be the least of your worries!

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This is a very funny book, in which the narrator and the protagonist interact with each other, as the narrator helps the over-eager protagonist out of a bear-shaped jam. As the narrator notes, real bears are very different from teddy bears, and while the bears in the story turn out to be suckers for snuggly toys, real bears are nothing to sneeze at.

David Roberts is one of my favourite illustrators at the moment – he’s worked on such hit titles as Iggy Peck, Architect and the other titles in the series, and Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau.

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Without giving too much away, though, the last illustration in A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting had both me and my colleague doing a bit of a double take. We had the same reaction when came to it, both turning back to the previous page to figure out the meaning of the illustration. If it means what we think it means, then yikes, this story takes a bit of a dark turn at the end! Talk about a cautionary tale….

Either way,  A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting would make for a great read-aloud, and will likely appeal particularly strongly to the older, school-aged picture book crowd.  Definitely recommended.

Review: Zak’s Safari

Zak’s Safari

When a change in the weather forces a little boy to change his safari adventure plans, he decides to instead take readers through the story of how he came to be. Zak is the child of two moms, who met, fell in love and decided to start a family just like couples everywhere. Babies come to be when an egg and a sperm come together, and different families bring these two elements together in different ways. With a focus on two-mom families, Zak’s Safari talks about what a donor is, how he was created with the help of a sperm bank, and how his family is just as full of love and zaniness as any other family.

What makes Zak’s Safari pretty neat, in addition to the fact that it deals with an underrepresented family dynamic, is the way in which the book came to be. The author, Christy Tyner, and her wife grew their family through sperm donation, and when the time came to talk to her children about where they came from, Tyner went searching for picture books to share with them. When she couldn’t find any picture books that reflected her family’s story she decided to write her own, and turned to Kickstarter to help fund the picture book’s creation. The book is now available on Amazon, but in a really fantastic move the author has made the entire book available to read for free on the book’s website.

My partner has supported several campaigns on Kickstarter (usually board or video game related – what can I say, he’s a nerd), and I’m always amazed by the variety of projects seeking sponsorship on the site. Crowdfunding campaigns like Kickstarter provide opportunities for authors/illustrators to bypass traditional publishing houses and publish their works with the support of the community. While I have my reservations about self-publishing (some stories get rejected by publishers for valid reasons), I can readily see its appeal for writers looking to create stories that mainstream publishers might pass on. As well, self-publishing allows creators to maintain full control over their stories, which could be very important to writers for whom their story has deep personal significance. Self-publishing also allows writers to be very involved in the marketing and promotion of their book, which could be very appealing.

While I don’t see self-publishing supplanting traditional publishing any time soon (and I wouldn’t want it to),  I think it’s great that writers have different publishing and funding options available to them as they work to bring their stories to life, and I applaud the variety that it helps bring to our collections.

Review: Fred Forgets

Fred Forgets

The world is a complex, unpredictable place in which bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, bad people can also be good people, good people can also be bad people, and there often doesn’t seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason to any of it. Seeing fraudsters, con artists, swindlers and other recognizable meanies get their just desserts can help us feel that there is at least some balance in this crazy, topsy-turvy world.

This desire for fairness is particularly strong in children, who often perceive the world more in black and white than in shades of grey. Good things should happen to good people, and bad things should happen to bad people – anything else isn’t fair, an outlook that can make the world feel like a confusing and unsettling place.

It’s this desire to see rights wronged that makes Fred Forgets sound so kid-pleasing. A mean monkey takes advantage of a memory-challenged elephant, only to receive his comeuppance when the elephant suddenly realizes that he’s been take for a ride. It’s a silly story to be sure, and there’s a “no elephants or monkeys were harmed in the making of this book” disclaimer for any caregivers who might be put off by the final scene of cartoon violence (though that monkey seriously deserved what it got). Some reviewers have suggested that the story promotes violence as a suitable response to bullying, and sure, it would be more appropriate to have the monkey and the elephant sit down and talk about their problems and their feelings and come to a mutually agreeable solution. And yes, the monkey is a total jerk, and some of his pranks are unnecessarily dangerous (encouraging the elephant to swim with sharks?) and insensitive (making fun of someone for wearing a dress is definitely last century and really isn’t appropriate anymore). But the book is also extremely goofy and over-the-top silly, and I do think that kids will find it funny, and not necessarily see it as a blueprint for their own problem solving strategies. Seeing “bad guys” get what’s coming to them is part of what makes Roald Dahl’s stories so appealing – evil characters don’t learn the errors of their ways and make amends in a heart-warming finale, they get squashed, and I can still remember how good that kind of justice felt to read growing up.

So, I’m a bit conflicted. I don’t mind the general storyline – a monkey teases his friend by making him do goofy things but gets his comeuppance in the end. I just wish the monkey’s antics weren’t so mean-spirited, and that the elephant’s retaliation was more thoughtful – letting the monkey get a taste of his own medicine so he could see how he likes it, or something like that. It’s not a bad idea, but it could have been executed differently.  Pick up a copy at your library and let me know what you think!